I am currently teaching a Sunday School series entitled “The Gospel, Politics, and Culture” at my church. This past Sunday I argued, among other things, that one aspect of the political witness of the church is the formation of strong moral convictions on the pressing moral-political issues of our day. As disciples of Jesus, we must not assume that the church must have no voice on issues that are politically contentious. While I do believe that the church should not get pulled into the weeds of specific political strategy (e.g., supporting this bill over that one), it has both the right and the responsibility to take a clear position on moral issues such as abortion, the nature of marriage, and religious liberty, among other things.
I will be teaching on the three issues I named explicitly above: abortion, the nature of marriage, and religious liberty (the three issues addressed by the Manhattan Declaration of several years ago). The fact that my mind immediately gravitates to these three issues when I consider the question of moral formation in our churches may suggest to some that I am simply proposing a right-wing agenda for churches. Why, some might ask, wouldn’t I focus on alleviating poverty, providing universal healthcare, and immigration policy? Aren’t these moral issues as well? Doesn’t my approach indicate that I am nothing more than a partisan cloaking his preferred issues in the language of discipleship?
Having thought about this question, I want to argue that the answer is no. I do not believe that the moral concerns of left and right are equal, and here’s why: on issues of moral concern, the left tends to opt for simple answers to complicated issues and complicated answers to more simple issues. The right (but not the alt-right, I must clarify), on the other hand, tends to recognize the appropriate level of simplicity or complexity in a given issue. The more complicated an issue is, the more difficult it becomes to form clear-cut moral convictions on it, and thus the greater need to allow freedom among Christians to form different opinions. Therefore, as the church seeks to form convictions in the process of discipleship, it should focus on those issues that involve relatively less moral complexity.
Take abortion, for instance. It is a clear-cut issue of whether or not a human being (for that is what the unborn child is) should be protected from murder. With the exception of some fringe cases regarding real, physical danger to the life of a mother, it is a straightforward moral issue on which Christians can and should form strong convictions. Christians on the political right have long spoken of abortion in such terms, whereas Christians on the political left tend to use false moral equivalences in an attempt to evade personal responsibility for their complicity in the ongoing practice of legal abortion in the United States. See, for example, this piece from the quasi-pro-life Rachel Held Evans. Where the right sees black and white, the left sees grey.
On the other hand, consider immigration policy. The issue is genuinely complicated, not only by the inherent need to balance protection and preservation of one’s culture and society with appropriate openness to outsiders, but also by the fact that the federal government has refused to enforce immigration laws for decades now, leaving us with a large number of illegal immigrants whose situations must also be addressed. Is there a clear “Christian” position on how to balance all of the relevant concerns, or is this an area where Christians who might agree on broader principles nevertheless have the freedom to disagree on more specific questions of policy? I think it is the latter, and any attempt by churches to form strong moral convictions on this question is an example of overstepping their moral authority. And I think this applies whether one leans toward a more open border position of the left or toward a more restrictive position on the right. All Christians should recognize that a righteous society will be one that shows hospitality to the stranger, while at the same time ensuring that the law is respected and enforced for the protection of its citizens. With those two concerns firmly in place, there may be a range of options on immigration policy that are morally legitimate. Where the left tends to see black and white, the right (again, not the alt-right) sees grey.
As a pastor, I want the members of my church to have fully formed convictions on the sanctity of human life, and I will address that subject, among others, as it is appropriate to do so in my ministry. I do not see it as equally important, or even feasible, that church members come to the same conclusion on the complicated question of immigration policy in America in the year 2016. I do not have the biblical warrant to impose anything more than broad biblical principles on that question, principles that do not in themselves tell us how they should be balanced and applied to this particular situation. Let what is simple be simple and what is complicated be complicated.